Felix Mendelssohn's 209th Birthday
Born 3 February 1809 in Hamburg (yes, folks, he actually was a Hamburger!)
Mendelssohn was a skilled organist, and during his visits to Britain gave a number of well-received organ recitals. His famous meeting with Samuel Wesley is described on my 'Gorgeous Georgians' page, near the end (scroll all the way down to the bottom – it's a long way, but worth it!)
The organ sonatas were commissioned as a 'set of voluntaries' by the English publishers Coventry and Hollier in 1844 (who also commissioned at the same time an edition by him of the organ chorales of J. S. Bach), and were published in 1845. The publisher's original announcement referred to the work as 'Mendelssohn's School of Organ-Playing', but this title was changed at the composer's request.
In response to the commission, Mendelssohn at first drafted seven individual voluntaries, but then decided to extend and regroup them into a set of six sonatas. The sonatas include references to a number of Lutheran chorales, and Sonata no.3 incorporates part of the processional piece which he had begun writing for the wedding of his sister Fanny and the artist Wilhelm Hensel at the Parochialkirche in Berlin in October 1829.
Sonata no.4, which I'm playing on Sunday 4 February, the day after Felix's birthday, was the last of the set to be written.
Years later, as he was in the process of composing the Sonatas, Felix wrote to his sister in a letter of 25 July 1844: ‘Look out the A major organ piece I composed for your wedding … I have promised an English publisher [Coventry and Hollier] a whole book of organ pieces and as I am writing them out one after another, that old one suddenly occurred to me. I love the beginning, but detest the middle, and am completely rewriting it with another chorale fugue, on Aus tiefer Noth.’ Fanny could not find the manuscript, so Felix had to write it out from memory.
Variations on 'Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig'
A Lenten mini-series
The anonymous chorale melody appeared as the last hymn in the Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (New Leipzig Hymnal) which was published in 1682. This book was used by Bach as a reference hymnal for many of his sacred compositions. This hymn book was one of the last to print fully-worked harmonisations of the chorales.
Of the four sets of chorale variations that are fully accepted as by Bach, this one (BWV 768) is the largest, best integrated, and most comprehensive in the variety of variation techniques and textures that it employs. The set consists of a chorale and eleven variations which I'm playing as a series over six successive services during Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, mixed with other pieces which honour the national days of Estonia, Wales and Ireland:
Wednesday 14 February – Ash Wednesday
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Chorale) - J.S. Bach
Communion: Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639) – J.S. Bach
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 1) - J.S. Bach
Sunday 18 February – Lent 1
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 2) - J.S. Bach
Communion: Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (BWV 705) – J.S. Bach
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 3)- J.S. Bach
Sunday 25 February – Lent 2
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 4)- J.S. Bach
Communion: Largo – Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918)
Saturday 24 February marks the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia. Tobias, born in Käina on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa, was educated at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire under Rimsky-Korsakov, and subsequently worked as performer, conductor and teacher in St. Petersburg, Tartu, Leipzig and Berlin.
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 5)- J.S. Bach
Sunday 4 March – Lent 3
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 6)- J.S. Bach
Communion: Rhosymedre – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The best-known of the 'Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes', published in 1920. Rhosymedre is a village near Wrexham, and the hymn tune, originally known as 'Lovely', was written by the vicar of St. John's Church, John David Edwards (1805-85).
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 7) - J.S. Bach
Sunday 11 March – Lent 4
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 8) - J.S. Bach
Communion: God so loved the world ('The Crucifixion') – John Stainer (1840-1901)
Stainer's 1887 oratorio, 'The Crucifixion', used to be standard repertoire for church choirs during Holy Week. Despite Stainer's own description of the work as 'rubbish', the chorus 'God so loved the world' and the hymn tunes are well worth performing.
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 9) - J.S. Bach
Sunday 18 March – Lent 5
Prelude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 10) - J.S. Bach
Communion: Prelude founded on an old Irish church melody – Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
The melody in question is 'Gartan', named after the birthplace of St. Columba in County Donegal, and used by Stanford in his masterful arrangement of 'St. Patrick's Breastplate' for the verse 'Christ be with me'. Saturday 17 March, of course, is St. Patrick's Day itself.
Postlude: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (Variation 11) - J.S. Bach
Click here for a complete programme of organ music for February and March, including Holy Week and Easter Day.